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Lawmakers, truckers cite safety

: A new walkway is taking shape along the truck lane at the Charlton Mass Pike rest area. It’s a key element of the proposal to move the Southbridge Registry office there. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
August 04, 2009
Friday at 5 p.m., the Southbridge Registry of Motor Vehicles is slated to close, with the new site at Charlton's eastbound Mass Pike rest area to open with fanfare Monday morning.

For some people, that means there's a race against time.

A rest area visitor can see one such race easily, as a Mass Pike crew works to build the long walkway from the Route 20 parking lot to the former tourist information building 270 steps away. As of Tuesday afternoon, it was a fairly smooth dirt path clearly awaiting pavement, with wooden squares marking where ramps would be poured to cross the truck lane. Nearby, cones marked the to-be-realigned drive-through entrance next to it.

But people associated with the rest area are still very leery of the project, particularly the safety of the proposed crosswalk. That's slated to sit not far from a curve in the truck lane as it goes around behind the rest area's main building.

Although the RMV's "safety plan" calls for various warning signs between there and I-90 itself, two Floridian truckers who stop here occasionally said that's not likely to be enough, even at the relatively slow 25 mph the truck lane has. Given a truck's mass, it takes a lot of space to stop, a distance that varies with the load size and weather conditions, they said.

"The motorists and truckers, they're tired and not used to looking for [pedestrians there] because it's out of their comfort zone," said the driver, Scott Carpenter. "You ain't got no time to stop or nothing right there."

His traveling companion Chuck Pearce agreed, saying any crossing "needs to be overhead. It needs to be; that's a dangerous place for a pedestrian walkway."

One employee identifying herself just as "Gina" predicted many Registry patrons won't even bother to walk that far along the walkway — some will probably cut across the lanes, while others may go around the other side of the building (through the truck fueling area) "like we do." That would make it more confusing for drivers.

"I think somebody's going to get seriously hurt," she added, noting an employee got hit by a car "not that long ago."

Concerns like that sparked more than 6,600 residents to sign an informal petition opposing the Registry's move from the Big Bunny plaza to this location. Town officials and regional legislators presented those signatures and various related concerns to Lt. Gov. Tim Murray early last week, and six legislators followed up by sending a group letter to Registrar Rachel Kaprielian last Friday requesting the information she used to make her decision.

Kaprielian has argued, most recently on Peter Preble's Tuesday morning WESO-AM radio show, that the project has been approved as safe by the state police, Mass Highway and the Turnpike Authority, but so far the agency has released only two aerial photos with various lines and labels on them.

"In order to ensure that this new site is both easily and safely accessible to our constituents, we respectfully request to see copies of the safety reports and supporting documents, both from Mass Highway and the Massachusetts State Police, which validate that the Route 20 access road is both a safe and reliable thoroughfare for those entering and exiting the new Registry," the legislators' letter states. "In addition, we respectfully request a copy of the Highway Department's pedestrian and traffic management plan…."

Dated July 31, it was signed by state senators Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, and Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, alongside representatives Geraldo Alicea, D-Charlton, Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, Todd Smola, R-Palmer, and Paul Kujawski, D-Webster. As of Tuesday evening, the Registry had not yet responded, Brewer and RMV spokesman Ann Dufresne said.

Dufresne added the Registry is "working on satisfying the request of the legislators." Despite having been asked last week, she said she still does not know what the ultimate cost of the necessary renovations will be, but repeated they aren't coming out of the Registry's budget. The new site's grand opening is still slated for Monday, with a ribbon cutting and various other things starting at 10 a.m.

"The old phrase is 'trust but verify.' I want some verification," Brewer said. "Is there verification that these reports will stand the common-sense test, that it'll be safe and economical?"

He said he doubts it, reiterating his previous belief that the Pike is not "a viable alternative." Instead, Brewer and others have sponsored a bill to require a "60-day cooling off period" for Registry moves so that the agency, legislators and communities can work on options in more detail. The Legislature also recently overrode the governor's veto of a budget amendment requiring future RMV changes like this to get legislative approval first.

On WESO, Kaprielian said the Registry has had to cut $13 million in the past two years, and described the overall fiscal picture as "unprecedented times, at least in a couple generations." Because the agency is moving to other state-owned sites, she argued the move would use "underutilized or unutilized space for the benefit of the taxpayers," while avoiding staff cuts that would be necessary if it stayed at its current location.

"Southbridge is the only place where we're closing a full service branch and replacing it with a full service branch," Kaprielian said.

One Registry employee who was not authorized to speak on the record said the new branch's staff will be smaller and some services won't be there. The Registry is still determining where its driving tests will be, but wants to keep them somewhere in the Southbridge-Sturbridge area because there are so many driving schools here, he said.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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